Masks in classrooms will no longer be required from Thursday, the government has announced, but teachers’ leaders have warned that the move is “premature”.
Prime minister Boris Johnson told the Commons: “Having looked at the data carefully, the Cabinet concluded that once regulations lapse the government will no longer mandate the wearing of masks anywhere.
“From tomorrow, we will no longer require face masks in classrooms and the Department for Education will shortly remove national guidance on their use in communal areas.”
Masks will no longer be worn in classrooms from Thursday and will no longer be needed in corridors from 27 January.
But Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teachers’ union, told the PA news agency: “No-one wants face masks for any longer than they have to be on … teachers and pupils much prefer education without face masks.
“But I think this is premature – pupils have been back two weeks… back in full-time education for about 10 days,” she added.
Dr Bousted said that at the moment infection levels in secondary schools were “not excessive” but were much higher in primary schools with one in 10 pupils infected. She added that primary pupils were not vaccinated and over half of secondary pupils were not vaccinated as well.
She said that if “we were going to have sensible policy-making” the government would have waited for attendance data released next week before lifting the restrictions.
“If you’re going to look for the greater or lesser evil, it is a much greater evil for pupils to have more school because they have caught Covid and they have to isolate than it is to wear a mask, so I think while we all want mask-wearing to be over when it is safe, this is premature.”
Dr Bousted said she feared levels would rise in schools and that this would cause “huge disruption”, particularly for GCSE and A-level pupils, adding that A-level pupils had never taken formal public exams before and were under huge pressure without the lifting of safety measures.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary for school leaders’ union NAHT said that Mr Johnson’s statement would feel “at odds with the current situation on the ground” for many school leaders.
“Mass disruption is ongoing, with high numbers of staff and pupils absent. School leaders are telling us they still feel very much in the eye of the Covid storm,” he said.
“The reality for many children and young people is that Covid continues to seriously disrupt the normal rhythm of schools.
“Parents and teachers alike will be hopeful that we have passed the peak of infections from Omicron, but it is imperative that schools continue to be supported by government to keep the gates open, as we emerge from the depths of winter disruption.”
Mike Hobday, director of campaigns at the National Deaf Children’s Society, said the charity was delighted with the news, adding that it would be a “huge relief to England’s 45,000 deaf children, who tell us that face masks have left them struggling to learn and left out of conversations with their friends”.
“We now need to get on with the job of making sure that deaf children are given extra help to catch up and recover from the isolation they have been experiencing,” he added.
A recent poll by the charity Parentkind found that 64 per cent of parents of secondary school-age children disagreed that pupils should wear masks in class, while over half – 55 per cent – of primary parents disagreed with their use.
Geoff Barton general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the announcement was to be welcomed, and was “supported by sound public health and scientific advice”.
But he added that the situation for schools and colleges remained “extremely challenging” because of the levels of pupil and staff absence due to Covid-19.
“We continue to be very concerned about the ongoing disruption to education and the lack of sufficient support from the Government for testing, ventilation and the costs of supply cover. This really does need to be addressed,” he said.
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